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5 Poems – Atlas

5 Poems

Sarah Shirley


Generous to a fault she was, say the aunts
squabbling over tiny sandwiches, spilling
watercress onto pink and dainty china. I
clasp my hands around a flowered cup
and gaze into the warm amber pool,
whispy bergamot steam floating up to
stroke my face, so like hers. She was fading
when I cried and begged her not to sign the
paperwork. The skull that lives in all our
heads was peeking out of hers, her eyes
sunken, cheeks drawn, but she could still
smile warmly, and she turned this smile
on me, asking really, what else would you
need me for? I kissed her afterward, let
my hands linger on her skin so cool, so intact.
Sometimes I see the students walk through
the park next to the hospital, and I wonder
if they see me, if they glance at me once,
then come back for a longer look, thinking
I’m certain that we’ve never met,
but I’m sure I know your face.


Fish and chips on Friday and then Mum gasped
and coiled over, sobbing into the couch while
Gem patted her on the shoulder, c’mon mum,
you’ll be fine, and we turned our smiles away,
whispering in the kitchen, here we go again,
remember the tears and squawking when she smudged
her manicure, just before Kelly’s wedding?


But we still fussed and fetched water and cool cloths
and hot cloths, until finally we thought perhaps
it had rumbled on too long. We called the ambulance
just after she began raving: It’s a desert,
and the birds are calling. I’m burning up with birds.
It had never been this bad before.


As she shivered under the bright lights of the emergency
department, we realised she was golden. After the needles
and lines were fed into her veins, after the camera was threaded
past the teeth and the tongue, down the neck through
the stomach to meet up with the rock squatting rudely,
backing up bile, the doctors came to see her spread
on her stale hospital sheets. She listened to the story
of the landscape within her abdomen, the tight corners,
the craggy stones, and waited for the ending when it all
would be okay. We took her home on Wednesday, tucked
her cosy on the couch where she folded her arms
over her belly, pressing her fingers into flesh.
She muttered they saw the birds inside me, they listened
to the stories of the rocks. We told her it was crazy talk,
left over from the pills, but she shook her head and scowled.
There’s a desert and it’s hidden, but they looked inside and saw it.
Then they filled it up with water and they called the birds away.


sticky rice in Manila and we almost didn’t see
the waiter fall, how he crawled a metre over
grey and tattered lino, then lay gasping,


pawing at the air. the old men whispered
bangungot – he rises and he moans.
The owner prodded a broom handle into his side


as we spooned the sweet rice into our faces,
how were we to know that the salt
was moving wrongly through his heart,


sparking chaos, the soft lub-dub
turned into itching, twitching madness,
wringing the strong muscle


into uncoordinated fits of shivering
and shaking, keeping the blood
away from the brain of the boy stretching out on the floor.

Open-ended questions

Silence is a good opener,
you can just lean in on it,
raise eyebrows high
and wait for them to fill it.
But sometimes it stretches too long –
and you hear the rub
of nervous hands
on jeans, so you have
to help. You say What
would you like to talk
about today?


And then you hope
for something specific:


The pain is right here.
It started yesterday.
It feels like a knife.
Moving makes it worse.
It is exactly eight out of ten pain.
I would like you to help ease the pain.


But sometimes they don’t know the template.
They say: my pain blooms in my ribs and my heart
it travels the lines on my palms,
it aches, it shakes me, it burns me
it is a pain like the harsh cough of the kaka
it grew from the time I was small
and I hid from my nan in the laundry.
I hold my pain tight about me
I would like you to dissolve my pain
set it free back into the leaves rattling
over the rusting shed in the yard


It would be easier if they had read the textbook,
or if you could just ask them to commit
to black or white.
But truth comes with the telling,
so you invite the deluge.


Open your mouth you say.

I remember Sleeping Beauty differently from this

Aurora on the grass
and a crowd in close around her,
opening a pathway
to let the ambos sidle through
to cup the mask over
her crumpled face,
push wisps of white
hair back from her mouth
making goldfish gasps
at the warm air of the morning.
A plastic shopping bag spills
boxes of cat biscuits and tea
bags and lollipops for the grandkids,
and a cappuccino-clutching
yummy mummy holds her own
child tight and murmurs soft
she paused, and then she fell.
And the ginkos rustle gently
as the knights in bright yellow
bend over her, pushing locked
arms again and again into her chest
to coax the blood out of the heart
beneath, and Aurora slumbers on
as the people make a collective silent wish:
wake up now, please wake up.


Sarah Shirley is a junior doctor living in Hamilton with her family and a large dog. Her poems have appeared in Poetry NZ, Landfall, takahe, Intima, and elsewhere.